King may finally testify about the beating he got

March 08, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES -- Federal prosecutors in the Rodney King beating trial continue their case this week in anticipation of the one witness who never publicly has given his account: the victim himself.

Speculation is rampant about the effect of Mr. King's testimony on the trial of four white Los Angeles police officers in the March 3, 1991, videotaped beating of Mr. King during his arrest for traffic violations. The four face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted of violating Mr. King's civil rights.

"King will either be a superstar or a disaster for the prosecution. It all depends on whether he keeps his cool," says Daniel Caplis, a Denver lawyer observing the trial as legal correspondent for NBC-owned television stations.

The appearance will be one of the most notable differences between the federal trial under way in downtown Los Angeles and the state trial last year in Simi Valley. Mr. King, now 27, did not testify at the Simi Valley trial. The four officers were acquitted at that proceeding, a verdict that lighted the fuse on three days of lethal rioting in Los Angeles.

State prosecutors had their reasons for not calling him: There was concern about how credible he would be as a witness. Mr. King, who suffered multiple fractures in his face, skull and leg, apparently had lapses of coherence, concentration and mood that concerned prosecutors. Also, he had contradicted himself several times in interviews with police and district attorney's investigators.

The decision by Simi Valley prosecutor Terry White not to put Mr. King on the witness stand and to let the videotape speak for itself was guided by a sense that defense lawyers would have had a field day with Mr. King. They could have exploited inconsistencies in his statements, and brought out his drunken driving record and a second-degree felony conviction in 1989 for robbing a grocer with a tire iron.

"He would have been up there as a target of the defense attorneys to beat up on him," Ira Reiner, then Los Angeles County's district attorney, told reporters at the time of the first trial.

But after the officers won acquittal, critics accused prosecutors of losing the case because they relied too heavily on the tape and did not call Mr. King.

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